When Road Less Traveled – the second album from American Idol season 10 runner-up Lauren Alaina – is good, it’s really good. The album as a whole has exceedingly tight production. Even the mediocre songs sound amazing, tightly polished and intricately put together. Part of this is due to the producer, busbee, a staple of the country music industry who’s currently best known for his equally tight work on Maren Morris’s Hero. Road Less Traveled sounds slick and sounds absolutely amazing, even if the lyrics falter at points.
The album opens up with “Doin’ Fine,” an uplifting song where Alaina describes a troubled past and family troubles. “I’m not okay / but I’m gonna be alright,” she sings, detailing a song of gradual healing, and slowly coming to terms with things. The repeated phrase of “doin’ fine” shows that there’s power in just being okay. Another highlight is “Three,” yet another song about the troubles of being in the music industry. Alaina wrenches sadness from her voice as she describes everything she’s missed out in her journey to stardom. The chorus ends with the surprisingly sad lyric: “six years of missing home / for three minutes on the radio.”
However, the album is very uneven. Four of the songs were previously released on Alaina’s 2015 self-titled EP: “Road Less Traveled,” “Holding the Other,” “Next Boyfriend,” and “Painting Pillows.” These are undoubtedly weaker than the rest of the album–it’s very apparent that those were the first songs Alaina wrote before her songwriting style changed and matured. This is a bit confusing, especially because “Road Less Traveled” is the lead single off the album. “Road Less Traveled” is middle of the road country pop about trying new things, being yourself, don’t be like everybody else, and so on. It’s ironic that a song about taking the road less traveled sounds exceedingly play by numbers. It desperately wants to be a hit and, as shown by the arrangement, definitely wants to be the big end of the concert song. Near the end, Alaina asks the listeners to put their hands up, right before the song launches into a section obviously designed to be a sing-along.
With “Road Less Traveled,” Alaina and the other songwriters (Meghan Trainor and Jesse Frasure) hit all the beats of a big, flashy, end of concert number but didn’t take enough time with the song as a song.
As a whole, the album feels very juvenile–not in the sense that the songs sound young, but in the sense that four songs in, you know exactly who Alaina’s target demographic is: middle and high school girls. She’s much more Cassadee Pope or Kelsea Ballerini than Maren Morris or Margo Price. And likewise, something being juvenile doesn’t necessarily make it bad. There’s plenty of media that’s tailored to a younger demographic and provides age-appropriate messages in a nuanced manner. And there are certainly songs on this album that a juvenile audience needs to hear: with “Pretty,” Alaina crafts a beautiful yet poignant song about body image, a modern country-pop version of the TLC classic “Unpretty.”
However, juvenile occasionally turns into immature. “Crashin the Boys’ Club” is the worst offender, an eye-rolling song about how Alaina doesn’t want to hang out with the girls who spend all their time gossiping, she wants to go to the bar and hang out with the boys who are fun, carefree, and apparently not spending their gossiping. She acknowledges that she likes her girlfriends, but the entire song reeks of “I’m not like other girls!” self-aggrandizement.
Overall, Road Less Traveledis a mixed bag of an album. The tight production does nothing to hide the fact that songwise, the album is very uneven. When it’s good, it’s ridiculously good but the majority of the songs are middle of the road to outright bad. There’s a huge disparity between the songs she wrote earlier and the songs she’s written recently. All in all, the biggest take-away that I’ve gotten from this album is that I cannot wait to see how Alaina continues to grow as a songwriter. From the growth displayed on this album, her next album has the potential to be amazing.